The Shame and the Danger of Egypt’s 98% Vote

(By Juan Cole)

The announcement on Saturday by the Egyptian government that there was a 38% turnout for the referendum on the new constitution was unexceptional. It was more than the 33% that turned out to vote on the Muslim Brotherhood constitution of 2012, but not that much more.

But the declaration that the constitution had passed by 98% turned the exercise into a farce. In 2013, the split was 63% for, 37% against. That is a believable proportion. There were problems with the 2012 referendum, including intimidation at polling stations of secularists and the refusal of the judiciary to oversee the voting and secure the ballot boxes. But the pattern of voting, where much of Cairo rejected that constitution whereas rural southern provinces greeted it enthusiastically, rang true.

Ironically, the prohibition on campaigning against this constitution, and on demonstrations against it, was contrary to the provisions of the constitution itself. It is a very bad sign for an organic law to become the law of the land in ways that contradict its own articles.

It isn’t a bad constitution as these things go, and most of its flaws were also present in the 2012 text. That isn’t the issue. The process whereby it was adopted is so flawed as to promise long term social division rather than national healing.

One of the things Egyptians most minded about the deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak was precisely that he used to win presidential referendums with almost no dissent. It wasn’t plausible; few were satisfied with his rule after the first few years. One Egyptian said on twitter, now we are back to the days of 98%.

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What 98% represents is insecurity and of arrogance, at the same time. The constitution would have won without the repression that preceded the referendum. Indeed, since it was a referendum it is not even clear how it would lose; it wasn’t competing against anything else. To attempt to whittle the opposition down to 2% is a sign of deep insecurity and lack of confidence. Why have an election at all if you insist you have to win overwhelmingly? The officer corps could just have issued the constitution as a fiat.

It is a sign of arrogance because it says the elite does not care if you think they look absurd. The do not care what anyone thinks, beyond the 40% or so of the public who approve of their coup, and beyond the majority that opposed the Muslim Brotherhood government. The opposition may not be huge, but it is a good fifth to a third of the population. Configuring it instead as 2% is an f-u gesture.

But that arrogance had already been clear in the absurd declaration in December that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization and the passage of a law imposing 5 years in prison and heavy fines for so much as defending the Brotherhood. Abruptly declaring that the entire political basis for the previous elected government is now a thought crime is Orwellian. It resembles the sudden governmental shifts in 1984, which cause the past suddenly to be rewritten so that things had always been like that.

The point of having a new constitution is to provide a common framework for Egyptians to go forward in their transition away from the Mubarak dictatorship. But this constitution is not consensual. The last one probably was supported by a fifth of the population. This constitution is probably supported by over a third. It is an improvement, but we don’t really know how much buy-in there is because no real debate was allowed. The text of the constitution was drafted by a committee appointed by a government that was appointed by the officer corps. The constituent assembly wasn’t elected and wasn’t representative, though neither was the body that drafted the 2012 text.

If the constitution had been passed by 70%, that would have been a cause for rejoicing. That it has passed by 98% is a source of ridicule and a sign of political immaturity on the part of the self-appointed ruling clique.

The Mubarak government had a moment of popularity in the early 1980s and even permitted a “Cairo Spring” of sorts early on. But power corrupts, and unchallenged power corrupts absolutely. By the 1990s Egypt had gone back to being an unadulterated police state. By the zeroes of this century, the Mubarak family was worth billions and started making plans to have Egyptians inherited like so many sticks of furniture.

Whoever becomes president in the upcoming elections, if he wins by 98%, will just become another Mubarak. Transitions to democracy come when there are two elections conducted according to rules accepted by all the major political forces. We haven’t seen that acknowledgment across the board of the post-Mubarak rules. In essence there haven’t been any elections that fit that bill, though there were two major elections, in 2011 and in 2012.

The massive crackdown on the Brotherhood, with an alleged 21000 in prison and over 1000 killed when sit-ins were broken up, is destabilizing and will only be more so as time goes on. That prominent 2011 revolutionaries are now in jail for simply mounting an unauthorized demonstration is a sad end parenthesis to the 2011 revolution. Worst of all is that some 900 youth in 2011 gave their lives for a more democratic Egypt. The martyrs’ blood so far was spilled in vain.


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14 Responses

  1. Interesting article. You wrote the “absurd declaration in December that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization”. I see many people hold the same views, yet seem to class Hamas as a terrorist organization. Considering Hams is part of the MB, what are your thoughts on the West seeing Hamas as a terrorist group? While I personally won’t class the MB as a terrorist organization, I don’t see it as an “absurd” ruling with the burning of the Churches and comments by their leaders such as:
    link to
    This was the MB spiritual leader, not an extreme version of the MB.
    While I believe that a government should be kicked out via the ballot box, the mandate the ruling party has, is based on their manifesto they ran on. Morsi power grab, selecting a terrorist as governor of Luxor, promoting inexperienced staff just because they are members of the MB are just some of the reasons why the Egyptians took to the street in their millions and why so many people support the military and the new constitution.

  2. This is an excellent assessment of what has happened in Egypt after a revolution that seemed so promising. We are back to the days of President Mubarak with a much more overt and brutal military face. This reminds me of the poem by the Iranian poet Nader Naderpour written after the disappointing results of the Iranian revolution:

    In my homeland
    After the dawn of blood
    There is no sign of the sun

    However, what kept the clerical regime in Iran going was its appeal to people’s religious sentiment and above all to the disastrous war imposed by Saddam Hussein on Iran that consolidated the revolution. The Egyptian military will find it much more difficult to justify its harsh rule after a massive and popular revolution.

  3. Mosaddegh, the former so-called “democratically elected” prime minister of Iran (NOT), received over 99% of the votes in his referendum (2,043,300 votes to 1300 votes against), and he is viewed as some sort of democratic icon by Western leftists.

  4. When “the military,” all medals and ribbons and innate corruption, link to, creates and constitutes itself to run things, holding the weapons and owning the nation’s business directly or obscurely, there’s plenty of Serious Historical Evidence of terminally idiotic we are. What’s shaking in Egypt is just one current example, where the “warriors” grab all the goodies. Another is Myanmar, and North Korea, and looking back, you have the colonization of Australia. Read a little about the New South Wales Corps here: link to The insinuation of the US military thingie into all those countries, which apologists tell us is mostly just about “training,” as in ” In most cases, they are on training missions, working with local forces to train them up on techniques [to do WHAT? School of the Americas/WHINSEC ‘techniques?’, link to ? ], as well as to establish a degree of interoperability should it be necessary in the future.” Read it closely: what does that bland text try to obscure? The US system is sending hundreds of billions in military and “other” monies to, e.g., Egypt, a place under the military-commercial thumb of a modern New South Wales Corps, and to many other out-of-the-way places, “to establish a degree of interoperability should it be necessary in the future.” The test of “necessity” being what, again? Keeping the complaining ordinary citizens under control? And under the planning documents the Pentagram is generating, it very clearly is the goal to have “the military” micromanaging social and political activities all over the place, with the usual unaccountable and idiotic outcomes. For a statement of the huge scope of the US military’s hubris and ambition, lookie here: link to

    “Shame and danger”? Yeah, there are reasons to be afraid, Egyptian reasons, and American too.

  5. You have no idea how much an article like this infuriates the Egyptian upper classes who regard their military has “heroic” and “democratic” for having overthrown Morsi. But even more than being anti-fundamentalist, these people simply want to preserve their economic power and status; they were never interested in the aspects of democracy that have to do with equality of opportunity or of education for the masses or of liberalization of their “crony capitalist” economy wherein the Army is an important business partner. What they wanted was to impress the rest of the world with their “secularism” and their Western-style “freedoms”–which, of course, would benefit their tourism industry, which used to supply one third of their economy. They don’t care about what happens to poor people who live in villages. Neither, of course, do the Brotherhood, but the Brotherhood, at least, created a semblance of caring. Egypt, unfortunately, is screwed up, and, right now, the upper middle classes hate Obama and they hate Americans for even suggesting they are living in the aftermath of a military coup. I know; I am living here now, and interacting with a clientele who are like what I’m describing.

  6. Dr. Cole’s comments show he really does not understand what has occurred in Egypt, or is supporting his few colleagues in the country who boycotted the referendum along with April 6th and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m very saddened by his efforts and those of others at Al Jazeera Arabic /English to disdain the efforts of the 50 member Constitutional drafting committee headed by Amr Moussa; to ignore the beneficial aspects of the new Constitution; and cast aspersions on the democratic aims of the current government and the broader Egyptian public. I will never read his comments on Egypt again without remembering this inaccurate post.

    • You did not give any specifics of any inaccuracy, Sherifa. Also, I did not disparage the new constitution but rather have repeatedly said I think it is better than the press it is getting in the West.

      However, could you tell me who elected that 50 member constituent assembly that crafted it?

      And surely you are not maintaining that the referendum met international standards?

  7. Lacking unity is a given, but lack of courage to make political compromise toward clear, strategic national objective is inexcusable and the case of mayhem from Pakistan to Libya and beyond.

  8. It is quite fair to remark the immaturity and authoritarian intent behind such a result. President Diem of South Vietnam declared a 98% victory in the (first and last and) overtly rigged 1962 election in which ballots were color-coded so that thugs could beat up his opponents afterward. The CIA tried to convince him to choose a more plausible number in the 60 percent range but he refused. Then when he and his brother tried to negotiate secretly with North Vietnam they were assassinated on US arrangements with their military, allegedly a state dept initiative rather than JFK’s orders. How we have taught democracy to the world. But at least historians can save themselves the trouble of determining the fairness of the election..

  9. The fact that the new regime is being so brutal even when it is popular seems very ominous. Presidents in most countries loose popularity over time and Egypt has a lot of deeply rooted problems that a personality cult can’t solve. If and when popularity starts to fade it seems quite likely that the new regime will respond to dissent the same way it does now and it could well be a pretty terrifying bloodbath. Imagine June 30 if the military was perfectly willing to lob artillery shells into Tahrir. Under Morsi there was at least something like separation of powers as the army, media and judiciary were all more or less hostile. Now we have single undemocartic regime that has tasted blood and sees itself as perfectly justified in killing, torturing and imprisoning another who it doesn’t like. June 30 was worse than a crime, it was clearly a mistake.

  10. I come from way outside the Egyptian loop but I’m not so sure that matters too much as her situation is by no means unprecedented.

    Militaries have often created conditions which resulted in democratization in the past. Washington was asked to ascend a throne. After years of bitter warfare, he did not. Military transitions to democracy have happened successfully in the aftermath of wars. In Japan it was the American military. Didn’t MacArthur impose a constitution? He did indeed. And hasn’t it been a success? Wasn’t the same true with S. Korea and West Germany? Does Kosovo have a democratic system today? South Africa changed after an armed revolution.

    Profound political change is often messy and armies are often involved, but that doesn’t mean that the results will be inevitably negative in the long term. For what it is worth I believe that’s especially true today in Egypt.

    The Muslim Brotherhood botched its time in the sun. The Army saw it as an invitation to chaos and put an end to it. Most of the Egyptian parties support the Army’s intervention. That looks something akin to “democratic” to me. It was heavy handed, but does that mean that it will not permit orderly democratic liberalization in Egypt? I don’t think so. What I see doesn’t indicate that the military wants to go back to the Mubarak system, quite the opposite.

    There are times when the western democracies, preeminently the United States, tend to think that our sort of system ought to spring into being at the stroke of a pen. It’s part of our Messiah complex. There is too much criticism of the Egyptian difficulties along the path and too little patience.

    Didn’t the Egyptian Army display a willingness for the country to be democratized by initially tolerating the Muslim brotherhood’s victory? And didn’t it act only when that crowd made a mess of it. And can’t an argument be made that it is likely to be even more committed to it in the present? After all it has presided over the drafting of another constitution which under the circumstances seems pretty liberal to me.

    • That’s a very accurate analysis. democracy does not come with a switch of a button, but is a lengthy process of trial and error.

  11. The referendum results are true, and not rigged. Why are they so high? Because many islamists boycotted it. Without the boycott, it would have gotten about 80 %. I know people who did vote this time, and they mentioned that all the queue was talking about saying yes. Moreover, election monitors attended the vote count.

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